Stiff-Legged Film Festival Series Presents:
Gene Hackman in the 1970s
April 9-11, 2010
The schedule: no-frills list version
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After four wildly successful director-driven festivals and two day-long horror franchise overviews (Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween), I thought the idea of the Stiff-Legeed Film Festival was getting a little predictable. I mean, it's a nice predictability -- who would reject the certainty of being blown away by full immersion in the work of a canonically recognized director? At the same time, I was running into two problems: many of the next directors of interest on my list were either endowed with impossibly large filmographies (Bergman, Godard), were really interesting but too hard to maintain enthusiasm over a long period (Bresson, Satyajit Ray), or both (Ozu, Fassbinder). Also, after two long, detailed, but also subtitle-heavy affairs (Herzog and Kurosawa), I thought it was imperative to return to a festival less reliant on the cinematic hair-shirt. It's worth remembering that the first Stiff-Legged Film Fest was a whole day of Freddy Kruger, and I have no desire to turn this festival strictly into Film Forum.
When I think of films made in the 1970s, I visualize a fast-forward collage of loners walking along two-lane roads in the desert, rogue law enforcers stalking the fringes of the urban wasteland, buildings and structures in peril/on fire/under water, paranoic (yet recognizable and strangely sexy) dystopias where everyone is either naked or dressed in silver unitards, huge ensemble cast pictures often based around war or disaster, women in prison, big budget westerns and musicals and kung-fu films and ALL THAT SLOBBERING LOVE FOR THE 1930s (from The Sting to Bugsy Malone to R.J. Grunt's). It was a time when the perfect father/provider figure for a single mom and her teen son was a thoughtful, bearded, rugged man like Kris Kristofferson, a man who would spend half the movie shirtless and in blue jeans. Exploitation movies ran free like a gazelle on the veldt, socially consious movies didn't always end happily, violence finally got to be gory (and be good at it), pubic hair was decriminalized, and even standard popcorn fare had enough detail and nuance to reward repeat viewing.
Encapsulating the '70s in a weekend or two would be impossible. So many great filmmakers hit their peaks in the '70s, and it was hard to narrow it down to one who encapsulated the spirit of the age. A director is not directing the spirit of the times: he or she is always directing an inner passion, which may or may not mesh with the times.
So why not an actor? Actors are free agents, hopping from project to project as opportunity and interest dictate, and the best ones can coax brilliance out of even projects that mean nothing more to them than a second car in the driveway or a chunk off the mortgage.
Finally, it hit me: Gene Hackman!! Who else to encapsulate the '70s? I knew he did both French Connections, The Conversation, and Night Moves, but a trawl through his output from 1970 to 1978 is a revelation: he's in just about every type of archetypal '70s film you care to name: disaster epic (The Poseidon Adventure), adaptation of a stage play (I Never Sang For My Father), big-budget war epic (A Bridge Too Far), violent mob movie (Prime Cut), cross-country "buddy" picture (Scarecrow), corrupt cop pic (Cisco Pike), and a generous handful of westerns (The Hunting Party, Zandy's Bride, Bite the Bullet). Plus, we end the weekend with Superman: the Movie, as good a symbol of the '70s transition into the Spielberg-ian '80s as any I can think of.
Gene Hackman is the through-line that connects many of the best (and worst) tendencies of '70s cinema. If we follow him, we may yet journey to the heart of the beast.
ALL START TIMES ARE RIGID!
Unless we're running late (unlikely!), the start time listed is the exact time we start. No whining, no "wait wait, I'm just circling the block looking for a parking space," no excuses. 5-7 minutes is all you're given on average between films; just enough time to queue up for the bathroom.
If all goes well, this fest will mark a new first in our history, namely, a two-room setup. I'm working on connecting the DVD to two TVs in opposite rooms of the apartment, opening up the possibility for twice as many guests. Pray to the AV gods for what I'm thinking of to work. And please pardon our growing pains as we try to figure out how to accomodate as many of you fine people as we can.
Some food and drink will be served (possibly even themed food for certain features), but bringing some to share is never a bad idea. If you want to run out and grab dinner somewhere nearby, I have a handful of suggestions of places that are a five minute walk away. And of course, carryout is plentiful and accomodating.
Unlike previous festivals, it's hard to post some sort of summary of the 'era' of the filmmaker's output, since there's little rhyme or reason to each day's bill of fare (except that it's strictly chronological). I'll be listing a lot more of the other actors in these films to provide some of the context, the cavalcade of unexpected fellow travelers Hackman was working with at the time.
(Also, because so many of these vintage film posters are so lovely, I've included larger versions of them. Just right-click on each film poster next to its respective description and click on 'open in separate frame' to see the same poster in greater detail.)
Contrary to the wishes of many Stiff-Leg regulars, we don't get to start with Hackman's awesome turn in Bonnie & Clyde (that was 1967), but with this, an adaptation of a play by Robert Anderson, who also wrote the better-known Tea & Sympathy (later filmed by Vincente Minelli, father of Liza). Melvyn Douglas stars as the patriarch of the family, a philanthropic and ambitious man in his youth who has now turned a bit crotchety. Hackman's character balances the need to escape to Califoria with his lady friend with taking care of his aging, controlling father. A rare film, and sure to be a real downer to kick things off.
From IMDB's summary: The wives of several high-powered doctors feel neglected due to their husbands' focus on their careers, so they embark on a regimen of sex, drugs and booze. There's little I can add to that, other than to list some of the neglected wives and neglecting husbands: Dyan Cannon, Richard Crenna, Caroll O'Connor, Janice Rule, and Richard Anderson. I have high hilarious hopes for this film -- the promotional materials read like it's going to be an AMA-approved version of the appallingly dated Burt Lancaster film The Swimmer, one of those films that blasts away at upper-middle-class mores in a way that now reads like back issues of Esquire (or even current issues). Also a rare film, not "technically" available on DVD. Not that you "technically" care.
The first of several brutal westerns we'll be watching this weekend, and the first in a trifecta of films pairing Hackman with Candice Bergen. Also starring the multi-talented Oliver Reed (whose credits stretch from Lisztomania to The Big Sleep) as an outlaw who captures Bergan (Hackman's wife in the film), ostensibly so she can teach him to read. Hackman plays a bloodthirsty, revenge-driven sadist on a killing spree out to take back his wife. Compared to Peckinpah by several reviewers. In short, this is where the festival really gets going.
I can't imagine you need much of an intro here -- you've either seen it or have been meaning to. This movie is the quintessence of '70s cinema: directed by William Friedkin, possessor of one of the greatest chase scenes ever preserved on film, and centered on Hackman's immortal role as a tough, alcoholic jerk with a heart made of shoe leather. You'd be a fool to miss this. Look at 'Popeye' Doyle in the image below...he's pre-emptively yelling at you for falling asleep on the couch when you meant to come over! He knows that this is one of the do-not-miss movies of the entire festival. When a movie inspires a chicken franchise, you know you've got to put on that hat and coat and brave the elements. Starts late; bring No-Doz.
A few of these descriptions can tell their story just by rattling off the names of the primary actors. Gene Hackman. Karen Black. Kris Kristofferson. Harry Dean Stanton. Antonio Fargas. Allan Arbus. Howard Hessman. Even Hugh "Wavy Gravy" Romney!. A cavalcade of brilliant '70s character actors in this story of a corrupt cop, a handsome young rockstar (Kristofferson), and a race to the finish over one high-stress weekend. It's an archetypal 'drug deal gone bad' flick, started at a time in the evening when only drug dealers (and film fanatics) would be caught awake.
Directed by Michael Ritchie, the subtle satirist who brought you another unheralded classic of the mid-'70s, Smile. Ritchie later went on to direct The Bad News Bears, Student Bodies, both Fletch movies, and The Golden Child, but for now, let's look fondly upon his nasty little 1972 creation. Prime Cut tells the story of Mary Ann, played by Hackman as a ruthless gangster patriarch in Kansas City, running drugs in the back and women in the front. Lee Marvin is a hired hitman sent to kill him...with a cavalry rifle. Sissy Spacek makes her acting debut as one of Mary Ann's girls. She's about, oh, jailbaitteen at the time of filming. Showing Ritchie's wide-ranging talents as a director, Prime Cut is about as far from Smile as Taxi Driver is from Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and yes, that means I think Ritchie deserves to be listed among the best of the '70s directors. This film is Exhibit A. I know it's early (especially if you stayed for Cisco Pike the night before), but I also know you've got it in you. A little too much coffee will put you in the right mood for this.
Unless you were awesome enough to see this in the theater, I'm guessing you've seen this movie the way I always end up seeing it: hungover (or bored) on a Sunday afternoon, randomly showing on some station that doesn't usually show movies in the afternoon. If you're like me, you follow it along to its bitter end every time. Along with The Towering Inferno and Airport!, The Poseidon Adventure is the third in the holy trinity of that most '70s of genres, the disaster flick. Like many of these wide-screen spectacles, it trots out actors and actresses from every generation of Hollywood (Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Barbara Lynley, Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowell, Pamela Sue Martin), assuming that most filmgoers will want to see this on the strength of at least one or two of the 20 names listed on the poster. Like Gilligan's Island at 1000 times the scale and no island, a happy little cruise ship turns into and underwater jail (it flips after a huge wave hits it, hence the tagline, "Hell, Upside Down") that can only be thrown open with the guts and determination of...well, a bunch of the actors I mentioned above.The artistic merits of disaster films can always be debated, but the actual moment-by-moment film thrill quotient is good enough for me. (Upcoming Stiff-Legged Film Fest theme: "Disasters & Dystopias." For real.)
It wouldn't be a festival of '70s movies without at least one "buddy" picture. After the huge success of Easy Rider, Hollywood gave a free pass to films about two gents making their way across America for a few years. This is a surprising pairing, one you might not have heard about before -- Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. I know, right? And it was directed by Jerry Schatzberg (The Panic In Needle Park, Street Smart) and shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters).
From IMDB user 'monterfamily': I saw this film many years ago. It has that early 1970's charm and feel that we almost never see anymore. Hackman (Max) an ex-con on the rebound and Pacino (Lionel) a drifting ex-sailor meet randomly while hitchhiking. They spark an unlikely friendship and venture on a road trip. Max plans on owning his own carwash and chooses Lionel for his partner in business. This is a story of two losers with modest dreams. They may not be the winners of society, but they will definitely win your heart. Max is a mean and tough creep while Lionel is a lovable rogue. The ending is shockingly sad and all too real. With effective symbolic panning of the fountain's cherubs and the haunting background score make for an unforgettable experience. Pacino and Hackman deliver remarkable performances. This is more of a guy film in that I don't think it's any woman's cup of tea [debateable! - ed.]. But if you want to catch a glimpse of great natural acting and a taste of 70's melodrama, Scarecrow is worth every minute.
COPPOLA'S BEST FILM? Maybe? The Godfather I and II give it a hell of a run, but this flattens any other contenders, even Apocalypse Now. I fully stand behind that seemingly heretical claim, and when you see Hackman duke it out with his own sense of moral obligation and the ever-encroaching bugaboos in his walls, you'll see what I mean. The Conversation is a cinematic punch in the chest. It's so good, it will shut you down. You'll pace and smoke (take it out on the porch, please) and blurt out "fuck!" and think about it for days and weeks after. It's about surveillance as an abstract idea, but also about the day-to-day work involved in being a surveillance man, that endless quest to, as Hackman's character Harry Caul says, "get a nice, fat recording." The sound design (by Walter Murch) is so stunning, so ahead of its time, it gets its own commentary track on the DVD. Features Harrison Ford in his jerkiest jerk role ever, Frederick Forrest ("Don't get outta the boat, man!") and Cindy Williams (Shirley of Laverne & ___) as the sympathetic couple/targets, and Allan Garfield as one of Caul's most awesomely slimy competitors. And how could I forget John Cazale! John Cazale makes everything better. In short, this movie is so awesome, it inspired one of the best movie posters in all of life, courtesy the brilliant poster-interpreters of Poland (see below). If you don't see this movie here becuase of plans or something, I won't hold it against you, but if you miss out on this movie before heading to the pearly gates, you better hope the sweet hereafter has Netflix, or they may make you come back to finish one last thing....
Y'all like Westerns? Y'all like Westerns that star Gene Hackman, and, er, Liv Ullman? Stay with me here. Hackman plays Zandy Allen, a wild west man who purchases a mail-order bride. And guess who comes to him in the big wooden crate, packed in styrofoam peanuts? That's right, one of Ingmar Bergmann's most oft-used actresses travels to Californy in the mid-19th century to, as one piece of copy states, be treated "like a possession, without respect or humanity." Sounds like a bucket of laffs! Special bonus points for my friend Mike McBeardo: special guest star Susan Tyrell (Forbidden Zone)!
After that last downer, the timing on this one is perfect. We've watched mail-order brides, high-tech paranoia, dusty-trail epiphanies, upside down cruise ships, and gangsters being ground into sausage. Pretty good day so far! Now, it's time to laugh again. And laugh we will! You've probably seen this one before, and I can't imagine you need me to explain a Mel Brooks movie to you, but you might be confused about its place in this festival. Hackman's not in this movie, is he? Oh, but he is! Allow me to demonstrate with a few simple jpegs:
Remember when we meet this guy:
And he's this well-intentioned blind monk who takes the monster in? And he tries to help him, but, y'know, he's blind, and the monster can't say anything to help? Then he does THIS:
Ow ow ow! Awesome. And yes, I know this is like four minutes of screen time, but I'm including it because 1) we need a laugh at this point (look at that lineup again!), and 2) Hackman considered this a crucial role at the time. He didn't take the role as a walk-on for a little extra pocket money...au contraire, clucking hen...he was such a fan of Brooks' work that he took this role for no money! (And improvised most of the dialogue on the spot, including the cappucino quip at the end.) We're following Hackman down every chute and spigot he managed to wedge himself into, and if that means seeing a movie you've seen (and probably already like/love) again, well, what's the harm? It's post-dinnertime, and you could use some quality digestion time. Especially before...
Back to the teeth-gritting again! That's right, Doyle is back, and this time, the French Connection is really French! Different director this time, too (John Frankenheimer), so a different style, different focus, more drug addiction, still the same old cranky-ass Doyle, though. Most people agree that this isn't as good as the first, but how many times have the opinions of "most people" led you into stupid-ass movies that you hated and led you away from movies you later found out you loved? Don't listen to those people! This might be awesome. As proof, I offer you the copy from the poster to the left...it's probably better than whatever brain-loogie I'd be trying to cough up in its place:
when you're a N.Y. cop
Another "Man searches for missing ______, finds out terrible things about himself"-type picture in the style of Chinatown, The Conversation, etc. Directed by Arthur Penn, another underrated director who did his best work in this decade. Hackman's Harry Moseby stands proudly next to Harry Caul, 'Popeye' Doyle, and "that guy from Crimson Tide who did that one thing" (I'm running out of material here, folks) as indelible creations, and like Michael Ritchie above, Penn (who also directed Bonnie & Clyde) is due for a re-evaluation. Starts late at night...get it? Night Moves!! It's at night! I....ah hell, see it or don't, what do I care? It's good, though.
You're not seeing double. It's another western with Hackman and Candice Bergen (and James Coburn and Sally Kirkland and Dabney Coleman and Jan-Michael Vincent), but unlike The Hunting Party, it's not wall-to-wall violence this time, but wall-to-wall horses. That's right, horses! Bite the Bullet follows the frolics and agonies of an epic 700 mile horse race, with Hackman playing Sam Clayton, a sensitive lover of horses who gets pushed too far a few too many times. Every character has a story and a reason for entering the race, making the synopsis of this feel like an 1890s version of Death Race 2000 with horses instead of horseless carriages. Hardly gentle, but since this is the first of the morning, it's good that it's not overly jarring, either.
I think a nice long book needs to be written on what the 1970s' fascination with the 1930s was. Here's a screwball comedy set in Prohibition times, with the unlikely triad of Gene Hackman, Liza Minelli and Burt Reynolds sharing the lead roles -- and one bed! -- as a triad of rum-runners who cross the wrong people. Called "The Ishtar of its time" by one reviewer, it's a mix of slapstick and graphic violence, which is a style that is hardly out of the ordinary these days, but didn't gel with fans back then. It may not be good, but it certainly is rare and most definitely not available in any stores right now.
AGAIN with the Hackman/Bergan pairing! This time, they get their help from Mickey Rooney, Ricahrd Widmark, and Eli Wallach. Directed by Stanley Kramer (On the Beach, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?, Inherit the Wind, Judgement at Nuremburg, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World) near the end of his career, the tagline mirrors what would later become the X-Files' slogan: "Trust No One. No One." This time, it's not a western, but a modern conspiracy movie with Hackman as a returning Vietnam veteran serving time for murder. One day, he receives a visit from a man in a suit, offering to let him walk right out that door in exhange for one hit, no questions asked. For fans of The Parallax View, 3 Days of the Condor, the Warren Report, etc.
All you need to know about this film you can discern from the 5 x 3 block below, specifically the cast list to its right side. This is the epitome of the star-studded, interminably long, impeccably shot war movie. This one specifically deals with Operation Market Garden, an all-chips-on-red longshot made by the Allies near the end of WWII to secure three bridges in Holland needed to march over the Rhine and into Germany. If you're reading start times, you'll notice that this is one extremely long film, so consider yourself duly warned: I cannot guarantee your safety, nor even your entertainment! I provide the film; it's up to you to build a bridge to it. No, I don't regret that pun. Much.
Yet another example of that most-overdone '70s film genre: the French Foreign Legion film. (cough)
Hooray! You faced the Foreign Legion, the Great War, the patsy, the long arm of John Law, and a whole herd of wild horses, but you were not dragged away. Now, you get your reward...the Man of Steel, come to liberate you from the forces of morally ambiguous, deep-focus, borderline nihilistic cinema and usher you into a new era of clear-cut heroes and villans, easy spectacle, John Fucking Williams, and THX sound (it's not just for 1138 anymore). As we exit the Asshole of the Beast, please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times, and consider sticking around for a few beers and hearty pats on the backs for all your awesome viewing stamina. Beacuse...
Now go home!